Review of Paolo Gerbaudo’s: ‘Tweets and the Streets’

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3rd Oct 2017 Politics Reference this

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Paolo Gerbaudo’s, ‘Tweets and the Streets’ presents an elaborate empirical assessment of social media in regards to modern day activism. The author basis most of his claims on data attained from interviews with 80 social media activists in Egypt, Tunisia, Spain, Greece, and the US. The work attempts to dispel numerous widespread fallacies that center on the supposed effects of social media in contemporary social movements. Much focus is spent putting forth the main thesis that the use of social media in carrying out modern day social movements does not necessarily entail that such movements are without a defined leader (as they typically were, historically); instead, such movements are driven and organized by a dispersed form of leadership, or a “choreography of assembly” which functions to guide the gathering of otherwise disconnected individuals in public space. The author admits that there really are leaders (in the usual sense of the term) in such social-media-based movements, but he qualifies the term as “soft leaders” or “choreographers”. This review provides a critical assessment of Gerbaudo’s main thesis, his arguments (including methodological features), and the theoretical background from which his arguments presumably emerged.

The author discusses the notion that digital activists (spanning from the Middle East to the Western world) have essentially managed to utilize social networking websites (e.g. Facebook, Twitter) as platforms for formulating a passionate narrative that serves to integrate popular identities and viewpoints, and also drives a collective attitude towards community-level political engagement in public space. Much of the data that serves as the backbone of the author’s analysis is either based on his own personal reflections or on the reported statements of various activists. He proceeds to posit some of the many challenges confronted by social movements that are specific to current era of social media. In the context of this book, there are two distinct features of the Internet as a mediator of social change: a) it can serves as a forum for debate (and, in particular, dissent), and b) it can function as a tool promoting social resistance. These two features could conceivably overlap, but are not identical to each other. Furthermore, the author claims that and that these two features are commonly conflated, which results in a one-dimensional, stale analysis of social media. ‘Tweets and the Streets’ attempts to negotiate between the idealistic and the cynical widespread beliefs regarding the Internet as a device for social change and assembly.

Gerbaudo asserts that centrally produced newspapers tend to reflect the predominant political perspective of the time, however he questions whether this can be changed by the current grassroots movements mediated through social media tools. The author critically deconstructs the commonly held notion networked-politics. Furthermore, the author posits a new notion, through which he uses to explain how social media serves as the link between online communication and actual real-life gatherings. He refers to phenomenon, again, as “choreographing“, and he views the actual, real-life gathering of individuals, as “assembling of individualised constituencies“. In these terms, he provides a critique of the network models of spontaneous, “natural” social movement. Moreover, he scrutinizes the “seamlessly optimistic vision” of connecting knowledge technological advancements to revolutions in general.

Throughout the book it is reinforced that to understand the role of the Internet in social movements, we must frame it within an historical context, and we must view it in connection to concomitant advancements in domains of technology (e.g. mobile phones, television and even print media). For instance, the title, ‘OccupyWallStreet’, arose after New York police were captured on camera, triggering television and other media reported on it. This led to a massive surge in widespread indignation. To the detriment of his argumentative strength, he only vaguely comments on the wealth of publications regarding closely related theoretical topics that offer other useful frameworks of social analysis. Moreover, he also tends to warp the arguments made by other theoretical figures in this research area. For instance, he mentions that Manuel Castells coined the term referring to a network without a center, he fails to mention that Castells that networks are not necessarily horizontal) or Clay Shirky (who gave a more refined commentary during the Arab revolutions than the slacktivism ascribed to him). Both of these theoreticians are more nuanced than it seems in the book. However, the author does he does successfully delineate the common factor underlying the work of these theorists amidst describing quite thoroughly the differences between them.

It should be emphasized that the author predominantly uses pseudo-structured interviews as a means of acquiring that data, on which his entire arguments rests. There are both advantages and drawbacks to this type of study design. Such a method is generally useful as a pilot study in itself, to assess and explore what peoples’ responses would be to a given issue. It may throw an entirely different light on an issue that the interviewer had not considered prior to the interviews. Flexibility and freedom for the subject to reply how ever they desire to is critical in giving them a sense of control in the interview scenario. Interviewing, however, also has its disadvantages, namely with respect to the amount of time required to collect and assess the responses. Because of the expected varied nature of the responses, it is often necessary to use a specialized content-analysis method to analyze it. This process, however, warrants much time and energy. Open-ended inquiries used in the pseudo-structured interview approach can often cause confusion either due to the lack of comprehension of the question by the subject, or due to the lack of comprehension of the respondent’s reply by the interviewer. Despite some of these drawbacks, open questions can be very informative.

Structured interviews, which may have been more suitable for the author’s research aims, are defined as a social survey where the range of possible answers to each question is known in advance. Often, candidate answers are listed in advance on the form, such that the interviewer merely marks the appropriate reply in each case. This method is far more standardized, employing a pre-established list of possible answers for the respondent to decide from. There is typically, however, very little freedom or flexibility permitted in the subject’s responses, which results from the fixed question order. Each subject is given the same questions, so as to ensure uniformity. This has its advantages in that the information is more readily quantifiable and permits the responses to be quantitatively compared. Because of the lack of flexibility in this method of data acquisition, it entails that there is very little room for unanticipated discoveries. Subjects often report that their true response does not fit any of the designated possible answers.

Within the confines of these two study designs, there are two basic categories of interview used in social research. The first of these is one-on-one interviews, personal interviews, or intensive ones. This form of interview uses a miniscule sample that averages 30 people. The interview typically lasts up to several hours. It stresses the use of open inquiries, permitting the respondent to answer as freely as possible. The questions that follow are then completely rooted in how the respondent’s answer guides the course of the interview. The questions, thus, are not standardized. It is usually an appropriate method of dealing with sensitive or emotionally charged topics, yet as a whole, warrants a good rapport to be built between interviewer and respondent. This interview method is flexible, usually resulting in a large amount of detailed data. This method, however, also has its disadvantages, namely because it is time consuming and very costly (likely the primary reason that the author did not use it for most of his research). The associated Interviewer bias presents quite a research problem, however. The lack of standardization of the inquiries in this method entails that it is challenging to generalize the data on a broader level.

It was original of the author to focus so much on the Arab world outside of the Middle East. Rarely do social commentaries on this subject stress issues regarding Arab activism in Spain and US (beyond the typical superficial update). After all, the inspiration for the book was allegedly the author’s own investigation of a set of independent uprisings, namely: the Egyptian revolution in Cairo; the Indignados movement in Madrid and Barcelona, and the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York. The author attempts to elucidate the manner in which such activists make use of social media to gain a form of political leverage. Ethnography is used as a device for Gerbaudo to characterize the movements with a type of insight that is typically attributed to an insider perspective. It is clear that throughout the book, Gerbaudo stands opposed to both the common pessimism regarding technological advancements and pure optimism for it. In particular, Gerbaudo discusses the role of leadership within contemporary popular movements, putting forth that all three of the above movements were not carried out in the absence of a leader; they instead involved “soft” types of leadership, “which exploit the interactive and participatory character of the new communication technologies”. This notion is contrary to the general public standpoint on the matter, as well as the ideas communicated by mainstream media outlets. Moreover, the author’s idea stands in opposition to the work of many contemporary social movement theorists.

Furthermore, Gerbaudo suggests that hierarchical structures did, in fact,exist within all of the movements that he researched. But he does not deny that oral exchange was a critical factor behind the organization of these movements. The book, however, includes very few explicit references to the use of mobile technology for interaction and exchange within the movement groups. Rather, the use of Cell-phones in accessing social media information is hinted at or explicitly referenced throughout the book. Moreover, the strong link between the ownership of smartphones and the use of Twitter in the different uprisings is apparent throughout the book.

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